Session 3 – “Creating an Opening: Transgression as the Ground of New Life
in the Stories of Tamar, the Midwives in Egypt, Pharaoh’s Daughter,
Zipporah,”* and Miriam
Texts: Genesis 38; Exodus 1; 2; 4:21-26; 15:20-21; Numbers 12; 20:1
The stories concerning these women perpetuate many of the elements associated with the early stories concerning the matriarchs in Genesis: the association with life-sustaining water, the preference for a younger child or underdog over an older sibling or social superior(s), and a transformative role—involving cunning and artifice/deceit—in carrying forth the plot.
However, these later stories not only replicate motifs and themes earlier associated with women; they also intensify certain elements in significant ways. The scale of these women’s transformative action broadens from the familial (Tamar) to the national (the midwives in Egypt). Moreover, allusions to “foreign” origins or relations, and to unusual and assertive sexual behavior, while present in the earlier matriarchal narratives (Sarah and Rebekah’s sexual bribery, or near bribery, of Pharaoh and Abimelekh; Rachel and Leah’s sexual bartering with each other and assertiveness toward Jacob) become much more pronounced in these later stories: The ethnic identities of both Tamar and the midwives in Egypt are highly ambiguous; Pharaoh’s daughter blurs ethnic lines in adopting a Hebrew child (Moses); Zipporah is the daughter of a non-Israelite “priest;” Tamar “plays the harlot” and dupes Judah; the Hebrew mothers’ fertility overwhelms the Egyptians.
Thus, a theme, present in the kernel in the earlier matriarchal stories, begins to take definite shape in these later narratives: Women embody a connection to “otherness” which appears to be central to their pivotal role as rescuers, deliverers and agents of transformation.
The story begins with a note that Judah “turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Chirah.” Judah takes the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite, as his wife, and she bears him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah takes Tamar to be the wife of Er. Er was “wicked in the sight of YHWH,” and so “YHWH slew him” (v. 7). Judah [in conformity with the law concerning levirate marriage in Deut. 25:5-10] instructs Onan to “go in to” Tamar, that she might conceive a son and raise him as the seed of the dead son, Er, who died without progeny. Onan, not wanting to have his own inheritance divided with his dead brother, refuses to comply, but instead “spills his seed on the ground.” “And the thing which he did displeased YHWH: So he slew him also” (v. 10).
Judah promises that he will have his youngest son, Shelah, go in to Tamar, so that she might still bear and raise progeny in Er’s name, but he instructs her to return and live as a widow in her father’s house till the boy is grown. However, the text makes it clear that this is really an attempt to ‘put her off.’ Judah appears to fear that she is something of a “black widow,” who might bring about the death of his one remaining son: “for he said, ‘Lest he perchance die also, as his brothers did’” (v. 11).
Tamar obeys, but when “she saw that Shela was grown, and she was not given to him to wife” (v. 14), she embarks on a ruse: She wraps herself in a veil and sits by the entrance to ‘Enayim [the Hebrew means “the two springs”], where she knows Judah will pass by on his way to shear his sheep. He sees her, takes her to be a prostitute [zonah; the Hebrew word for a common harlot, as opposed to a sacred prostitute], and propositions her. In response to her request for payment, he promises to give her a kid from the flock. She, however, demands collateral: His signet ring, his cord, and the staff in his hand [symbols of both his identity and his authority]. He agrees, and “went in to her, and she conceive by him” (v. 18). She returns to her father’s house to live as a widow.
Judah sends “his friend, the Adullamite” to deliver the kid in payment, and to retrieve the collateral, but the woman Judah had sex with is not to be found. Chirah inquires after her, but cleans up Judah’s behavior by inquiring, not after a harlot (zonah), but after a “sacred prostitute” (qedeshah). The “men of that place” assure him—truthfully, in fact, though also ironically—that “there was no prostitute [qedeshah] in this place” (v. 21). Chirah brings their report back to Judah, who asks him to drop the matter, “lest we be shamed” (v. 23).
Judah receives word that his daughter in law, Tamar, has “played the harlot [zantah]” and “is with child by harlotry” [zenunim] (v. 24). He commands that she be brought out and burnt to death (v. 25). She, however, brings forth the ring, cord and staff, demanding, “Discern . . . whose are these.” “And Judah acknowledged them, and said, “She has been more righteous than I; because I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more” (v. 26).
Tamar has, in fact, conceived twins. Her labor and delivery are described in detail: One infant puts its hand out of her womb, and the midwife ties a red cord around it, saying, “This came out first” (v. 28). But, his brother is the first to be delivered, and so she [the midwife? Tamar?] names him [or “calls him”] Parets, meaning, “breach.” His brother comes out wearing the scarlet thread, and he is called Zarach, meaning “splits open.”
In verses twelve and twenty, we learn that Chirah is Judah’s confident and “friend” (ro`ey; the word also means “companion” and “neighbor”). His status as an Adullamite is significant: The Adullamites figure among the ‘foreign’ Canaanite peoples whom the Israelites are later called on to shun; indeed, to wipe out from the face of the land (viz. Joshua 12:7-8, 15; Deut. 7:1-6). Judah, however, not only makes a friend and companion of a Canaanite, but marries one (v. 2).
Tamar’s ethnic identity is not explicitly stated. But, from verse six (“and Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, whose name was Tamar), it may be reasonably inferred, in the light of Judah’s physical location among Canaanites and of his having himself taken a Canaanite woman to wife, that she is a Canaanite.
Among source-historical critics, it was long assumed that Gen. 38 was a “clumsy” or “haphazard” interpolation into the Joseph narrative. This text was a primary piece of evidence for the argument that the received text was patched together from disparate sources. And, indeed, there are chronological discrepancies, especially involving the ages of the main characters. However, more recent scholars interested primarily in Biblical narrative as literature (Robert Alter, especially) have pointed out that the “weaving” of Gen. 38 into the preceding and subsequent narratives is far from artless. To describe just a few elements of the intricate parallelisms among these texts:
· Gen. 38 begins with Judah’s “going down” from his brother’s territory into the land occupied by Chirah. This resonates with the opening of the following chapter, in which Joseph was “brought down” (same root verb in Hebrew) into Egypt.
· Tamar uses articles of clothing to deceive Judah about her identity, just as Judah used Joseph’s bloodied coat to deceive his father, Jacob, about what had happened to Joseph (27:23-24, 30-34), and just as Jacob had earlier used an article of clothing (involving, as in Tamar’s story, the use of a “kid from among the flock”) to deceive his father, Isaac (Gen. 27). Joseph, in turn, will hide, and later reveal, his true identity in his meeting with his father, Jacob.
Among the elements which tie Tamar’s story to earlier (and later) narratives, some are especially pertinent to our topic:
· Tamar’s birthing of Parets and Zerach (38:28-30) involves a motif of the “reversal of primogeniture,” just as did the stories of Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. The names are significant: Tamar, the foreign woman, preserves a family line in Israel through acts of cunning and deception, and brings about a reversal/transformation. She becomes the mother of “breach/opening” (Parets) and of “tear/splitting” (Zerach). This reversal/ transformation is marked symbolically by the presence of a red cord, just as red figured prominently in the reversal of fortunes in Esau and Jacob’s birth narrative, as it will figure prominently in the story of Rahab’s rescue/ deliverance of the Israelites, and as a red symbol figures prominently in the deliverance of the Israelites from angel of death at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
· In verses six and seven, great emphasis is placed on Er’s status as the “firstborn” (bekhor), a term given great emphasis in the Jacob/Esau and Rachel/Leah cycles.
· Onan’s reluctance to “expend himself” in impregnating Tamar on behalf of his dead brother, and Judah’s reluctance to assign a similar role to his last remaining son, Shelah, resonate with the retentiveness of Laban in following through on his promise to ‘give’ Rachel to Jacob.
· Tamar’s encounter with Judah at “Enayim” [two sources/two wells] echo the earlier scenes in which Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah are all encountered near sources of water. As in their case, this seems to signify her role in rescuing the line of Israel from some threatened drought/barrenness: In this case, she will preserve a family line from dying out.
Shiphrah and Pu`ah are “women on the edge” in several respects:
· They mark the transitional point between the familial scope of Genesis and the national scope of Exodus, and indeed, they have ‘a leg in both worlds”: As midwives, they are involved in birth narratives such as those typical of the matriarchal stories in Genesis; but, the “underdog” whom they rescue and deliver is the whole nation of Israel.
· This transitional status within the structure of the narrative is underscored by the vocabulary signifying the Hebrew women’s fertility, a fertility which it is the midwives’ profession to enhance. The words translated as “multiplied,” “mightier,” “more,” “grew” are repeated throughout the text, and echo the occurrence of the same root words in Gen. 1:20-23 and 26-28. The parallelism is reinforced by Pharaoh’s proposal, “Come, let us deal wisely with them” (v. 10), with its echo of the “cunning serpent” and the “tree of knowledge” in Gen. 3.
· The midwives’ role as deliverers is associated (albeit negatively) with water: They are supposed to throw the Hebrew male children in the water, but refuse to do so.
· Their role as deliverers is associated with cunning and deceit, along with (like Rachel and Leah) defiance: They disobey Pharaoh, then trick him about doing so (vv. 17-19).
· The latter parallelism places Pharaoh alongside Laban, Esau and (in their worse moments) Isaac and Judah as a retentive character, who would stand in the way of new developments and new life. This contrasts with both the midwives’ actions and the will of God. This concord between the midwives’ acts and God’s will is suggested in a repeated image first encountered in Exod. 3: 17-18, 20: God promises to “stretch out my hand [or ‘arm’],” and “bring you up out of the land of Egypt” to “a broad land, flowing with milk and honey.” Note the presence of other motifs in the exodus connoting earlier birth narratives: God, acting in response to the Hebrews’ “groaning” (2: 23-24) and “crying out” (3: 7-8), “brings [the Israelites] out” with God’s “outstretched arm” (5:6-7, et al.) through a narrow passageway (the dry passage through the Sea of Reeds) into a new, more expansive life (“a broad land”), in which God will adopt them: “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (v. 7). Just as the scenes in which Rebekah births Jacob and Esau, and Tamar births Parets and Zerach, contain symbolic references to red, connoting the blood of parturition, so does the Exodus scene: the Israelites are commanded to smear the blood of a sacrifice on their lintels (passageways) to ensure their preservation at the time of the Passover (Exod. 12:3-7, 13, 21-23), and to commemorate the event by ritual circumcision (12:48-50 et al.) As deliverers, God and the midwives share a common mode of action; the midwives in Exod. 1 are veritable icons of God’s salvific action on behalf of God's people.
· The midwives’ ethnic identity is ambiguous. The text refers to them as “the Hebrew midwives,” but their names and their frequent and frank repartee with Pharaoh make it seem more likely that they are Egyptians assigned to work with the Israelites.
The story of the deliverance of the nation is closely followed by the story of the birth and rescue of its chief (human) deliverer: Moses. Again, his rescuers and deliverers are women: Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ sister (later, in 15:20, identified as “Miriam,” assuming that “the sister of Aaron” is also that of Moses), and Moses’ mother (identified in 6:20 as Yokhebed).
Again, these female deliverers are strongly associated with water; i.e., the river Nile, to which Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids come to wash, and on whose banks “among the reeds [suph]” (echoing the “sea of Reeds [yam hasuf]” through which the Israelites will later pass) Moses’ sister places the pitch-covered “box” [`arôn, the same word as that used for Noah’s ark, and the ark of the covenant] containing the baby Moses.
Again, we encounter multiple levels of cunning, deceit and defiance (Miriam and Yochebed’s deceit of Pharaoh’s daughter, the daughter’s defiance of Pharaoh).
The theme of ethnic ambiguity/foreign relations is embodied in Moses’ very name: The text attributes a Hebrew etymology, but the reference to the city of “Ramses” in 1:11 reminds us of a more likely Egyptian derivation: the Egyptian suffix “mss” meant “son of,” and was commonly appended to the name of an Egyptian god [e.g., Ramses = Ramoses=“son of Ra”].
Moses’ association with the foreign is underscored by his stay in the house of Yithro, the “priest of Midyan” and by Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, Yithro’s daughter. Note the strong parallels, but even stronger contrasts, between Laban and Yithro’s circumstances and behavior.
Moses’ encounter with Zipporah again occurs beside a well, and involves miraculous provision. Moses, in this case, is the provider, and his actions by the well foreshadow his role as “deliverer” (v. 19) of Israel.
Zipporah’s deliverance of Moses associates her with circumcision, which is itself associated with ritual sacrifice. Cultural anthropologists have found both to be associated with imagery connoting birth in the symbolism of male initiation rituals practiced among tribal cultures throughout the world. Thus, Zipporah functions at the narrative level in a role analogous to that of an initiant in a rite of passage and, as Karen Winslow has pointed out, as a priest in ritual sacrifice.
Note that Miriam is here termed “the prophetess.” She leads the Hebrew women in an ecstatic victory song and dance.
A number of scholars have asserted that the first lines of Miriam’s song probably actually constitute a title originally attached to the “Song of Moses” (15:1-18). Moses’ song may well have originally been attributed to her.
Miriam seems to receive an unfair portion of the punishment for her and Aaron’s contesting of Moses’ authority. But, note that her punishment, if applied to Aaron, would have caused narrative problems: Leviticus and Deuteronomy make it clear that the Aaronic priests must be preserved from all physical “impurities.” More significantly, note the reason for the punishment: Aaron and Miriam have castigated Moses for his marriage to a foreign woman. God does not appear to share their qualms about that.
Miriam’s death does not receive much notice. But, that it receives any notice at all may still be significant.
The stories concerning the midwives in Egypt, Moses’ sister and mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ wife, Zipporah, replicate many of the motifs we have noted in the matriarchal narratives concerning Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar: the association with life-restoring water, assertive sexuality, scenes of birth, the reversal of primogeniture or other preference for the underdog, marginal status, exogamy or other foreign ties, the use of cunning artifice/deceit, and insubordination in the face of obtuse and retentive worldly authorities. In the Exodus stories, these motifs are not merely replicated, though: they are re-inscribed in such as way as to connote and foreshadow the primary event of Exodus and of the whole Hebrew Bible: the Passover, i.e., God’s rescue and deliverance of God's chosen people, Israel, whom God depicts as an “underdog” nation: “YHWH did not set his love upon you, or choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).
In these stories, the women protagonists’ transformative action on behalf of the underdog becomes an icon of God’s deliverance of God's people, of God's salvific intervention in human affairs. These women’s marginal status, then, is to be read in iconic terms: their “otherness,” however it is narrated—in terms of sexual marginality, foreign origins or ties, or whatever—connotes the “Otherness” of the God who subverts human priorities and brings God's underdog people out from their place of bondage. This quality of God—God’s “Otherness”—is emphasized throughout the Biblical text. This God, the God who rejects human representation in the making of idols, the God who simultaneously reveals and veils God's self in the mysterious name “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (“I am who I am” or “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I will be”)—or, more simply, “Ehyeh” (“I am,” or “I will be”; Exod. 23:14)—, the God who confronts and seeks to kill Moses in Exod. 4:21-26, who wrestles with Jacob (Gen. 32:25-30), who refuses to “take sides” with either Israelites or Canaanites in God's self-manifestation to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), is profoundly Other. It is precisely this Otherness of the God who rules over all that seems to provide such hope to a people who felt devalued by the prevailing human systems of value and priority, and it is this Otherness which the marginalized women protagonists of the Hebrew Bible repeatedly draw upon in carrying out their transformative course of action.
* * *
“Did Moses Write the Book of Genesis?: The Promiscuous Editing of Genesis—Spinoza and the Story of Judah.” www.awitness.org/contrabib/torah/judah.html
Hawk, L. Daniel. Ever Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991.
The Holy Scriptures. Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.
Jocobson, Diane. “Gen. 12-50: The Women of Genesis.” Harlots and Heroines: Women in the Old Testament. St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary, n.d. www.luthersem.edu/djacobso/HH/Outlines/Outline.Genesis%2012-50.htm.
Leithart, Peter. “Gleanings from Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative. Biblical Horizons 37 (May, 1992). www.biblicalhorizons.com/bh/bh037.htm
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1992.
Niditch, Susan. Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore. San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
Polzin, Robert. Moses and the Deuteronomist. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U. P., 1980.
Reardon, Patrick. “The Wise Outwit the Shrewd.” Touchstone (November, 2001). www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=14-19-108-c
Winslow, Karen. “Ethnicity, Exogamy, and Zipporah”: Annual Meeting Open Session: Women in the Biblical World. N. l.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
* Unless otherwise noted, English translation and Hebrew text are from The Holy Scriptures; Jerusalem: Koren, 1997.